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Matthew Weirich

A missionary for The Church of Jesus of Christ of Latter-day Saints was found alive in a deep canyon of an Australian national park, less than 24 hours after he reportedly fell from a cliff while looking for a lost shoe.

Matthew Weirich, 21, had survived an icy winter night in Morton National Park but was unconscious when spotted by a rescue helicopter early Thursday morning. Suffering from serious head injuries, Weirich was in serious condition at the Liverpool Hospital south of Sydney after being airlifted out of the canyon, according to a story by the Australian Associated Press.

Weirich went missing about 2 p.m. Wednesday while hiking in the park with three other missionaries. That part of Australia is 15 hours ahead of Mountain Standard Time.

"We feel like a miracle happened," said Jinger Aleman, a friend of Weirich's family in Fredericksburg, Texas, who was serving as their spokesperson.

New South Wales police agree.

"It is a miracle," New South Wales police spokesman Norris Smith said. "And if he is a missionary like some people are saying, then I guess the boss was looking after him."

Although the details were sketchy at press time, Smith said a helicopter had lowered paramedics into the canyon to assist Weirich where he was spotted about 9:45 a.m. Thursday. Police believe Weirich crawled under a barrier and fell from a steep cliff face known as the Grand Canyon Lookout. An official search was suspended at 7 p.m. because of darkness. New South Wales police resumed the search effort about 7 a.m. Thursday, Smith said.

Morton National Park's landscapes are primarily sandstone cliffs, from which waterfalls cascade into rainforest valleys, according to information from the park Web site. The park is south of Sydney in Australia's Southern Highlands.

Weirich was serving in the Australia Sydney South mission, LDS church spokesman Dale Bills said. Bills did not know when Weirich's mission had begun, but Aleman said he was due to return to Fredericksburg in August.

Weirich's family had learned of Matthew's rescue from reading the Web site of an Australian media outlet, and had not yet heard from authorities or his mission president, Aleman said.

The mission president had called Matthew's parents, Rick and Brenda Weirich, about 4 a.m. Wednesday notifying them that their son was missing, Aleman said.

The Weirichs were told that their son and his friends were climbing in a steep, heavily wooded area and exploring several caves when one person noticed that one of his shoes, which was probably tied to a backpack, was missing, Aleman said. Weirich volunteered to retrieve it and headed down the trail, shouting back and forth with his three companions, she said.

"They could see him and hear him. He climbed a tree and said 'take my picture.' " said Aleman. "They heard him for about three to five minutes as he was finding his way down the trail. When they heard nothing is when they started calling for him and going out and searching."

She did not know how long the three looked for Weirich before contacting authorities. None of the three said they could identify where Weirich left the trail either by falling or climbing.

Weirich is one of nine children. He spent two years at Brigham Young University before leaving on a mission, Aleman said. As a member of the BYU track team, Weirich placed third in the decathlon at the Mountain West Conference meet. He finished second at the Junior National Track and Field meet in 2002, was a Junior All American and member of the USA Junior World team, according to information from the BYU athletic department Web site.

Weirich's parents are expected to go to Australia to see their son, Aleman said.

"They are ecstatic," she added.


Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche

E-mail: jdobner@desnews.com